Between me and my husband we've owned more MP3 players over the years than I can count, including Sansas, iRivers, iPods (classic & touch), the Ibiza Rhapsody, etc. But, the last few years I've settled down to one line of players. Why? Because I was happy to discover how well-designed and fun to use the underappreciated (and widely mocked) Zunes are.
I'll gear this review to 2 types of people: current Zune owners who are considering an upgrade, and people trying to decide between a Zune and an iPod. There are other players worth considering out there, like the Sony Walkman X, but I hope this gives you enough info to make an informed decision of the Zune vs players other than the iPod line as well.)
Zune and iPod: Most people compare the Zune to the Touch, but after seeing how slim and surprisingly small and light it is, I consider it to be a rather unique hybrid that combines qualities of both the Touch and the Nano. It's very colorful and lovely OLED screen is slightly smaller than the touch screen, but the player itself feels quite a bit smaller and lighter. It weighs about 2/3 as much, and is noticeably smaller in width and height, while being just a hair thicker.
Points of comparison:
- Brighter OLED screen with more vivid color and better contrast
OLED screens can wash out in direct sunlight more than others, but in almost any other situation they are clearly preferable, and have a marvelous eye-catching picture that needs to be seen to be appreciated. The screen has slighly lower resolution than the iPod Touch, but is also slightly smaller, so in the end video looks a little less pixellated when viewed closely, and very vivid.
- HD Radio
If you live within the reception area of some HD radio stations this can be a surprisingly nice feature. For me it's not so much the slightly better sound quality as it is the additional streams of content that make this fun. For example, if you tune into an FM station, then it's playing what you here, and if you don't like it too bad. With an HD station, you may tune in and it will be shown with up to three signals to chose from labeled HD1, HD2, and HD3. HD1 may have whatever is playing on the FM version, HD2 may be news, and HD3 might be some alternative music w/ a different theme. For example one of our oldies station in the Boston area broadcasts a love-song themed selection on HD3. One caveat: if you don't have a strong enough signal, these HD versions can cut in and out, making them frustrating to listen to. But, when the signal is strong enough it's very enjoyable.
- 720p video output via (an over-priced) dock. When transferring video content to the Zune you can specify if it should be sized appropriately for playback on the Zune or TV, so if you do plan to just watch on your Zune you won't have the video taking up huge amounts of storage.
- Zune Pass subscription service
This is my favorite feature that will keep me using a Zune until it's pried from my my desperate grasp. For $15 a month I get 10 DRM-free MP3 songs to keep, and unlimited access to millions of songs. As long as you would have bought at least 10 songs anyways that means you're paying only $5 for that access. It's better than Pandora, Slacker, LastFM or other services because you can listen to full CDs, specify playlists and tracks in the exact order you want, AND can either stream this music or store it on your Zune to listen to later, even if out of wifi range. Lots of people present subscription services as something you do INSTEAD of owning music, but at this cheap a price there's no reason you can't use this as a supplement to whatever purchases you make. It's not either/or, it's a wonderful "AND", especially if you're the type who likes to explore and enjoy a broad range of music.
Apple now has Rhapsody as an app, which is a great start, but it is currently hampered by the inability to store locally on your iPod, and has a dismal 64kbps bit rate. If this changes, then it will somewhat negate this advantage for the Zune, but the 10 songs per month will still be a big plus in Zune Pass' favor.
- Wireless sync
In addition to wireless net access, you can sync your Zune to your PC wirelessly, which can be quite convenient on occasion. The new Zune HD seems to have better wireless reception than my prior Zunes.
- Smart DJ
Rhapsody first popularized a playlist construction service with its 'Channels' feature, and Apple followed with its 'Genius' feature. The idea is that you specify a song or artist, and the service will construct a playlist of similar music of both familiar and new artists for you to enjoy. The prior Zunes had a 'Channel' feature too, but I found it lacking in sophistication and accuracy. The 4.0 Zune Marketplace upgrade (the Zune equivalent of iTunes) now has a 'Smart DJ' feature that is a much improved version of the old Channels. I actually find it very useful now, and what's even better is that if you have Zune Pass you can specify whether it should pull music exclusive from your collection, from the Zune Pass selection, or from a combination of both. It's wonderfully flexible and lots of fun.
- Web Browsing
The new Zune browser is surprisingly good, but not as good as the iPod's. It works well, but isn't as fast as Safari, and has a clunkier interface. If you occasionally plan on using the web browser that's not an issue, but if you're planning to browse the web alot from your PMP then the iPod's larger screen and better browser may be important.
- App Store
Hands down, Apple's app store wins by a mile. It's a huge selection of all sorts of apps vs a rather sad selection of a handful for Zune. Microsoft has plans, especially in the realm of games, but I'm not sure I'd want to bet on the future if this aspect is important to you. The iPod is a much better choice in that case.
- Zune Marketplace and iTunes
This is getting a bit more subjective, but I much prefer the Zune Marketplace. The interface is colorful, has more flair, and some cool features like 'Mixview' that let you quickly see related albums, songs, or other users related to what you're listening to. Clicking on one of those will center on that item, and another set of "neighbors" will come into view, allowing you to navigate around exploring by similar artists, songs, or users. Speaking of users, the Zune "Social" is also great fun, letting you find others with shared tastes and becoming friends with them. You then can listen to a playlist created based on an amalgamation of what all your friends are listening to, which is also enjoyable. Those concerned with privacy will be relieved to know you can prevent the public from seeing your personal listening habits if you so choose.
The HD's UI was a bold move that paid off. It may look cluttered and overly busy in screenshots, but to see it in action is to appreciate the design. It isn't always obvious, and the provided documentation is sparse, but a little experimentation will show you a UI with lots of flexibility, like a menu of favorites, newly added music, and a user-definable set of shortcuts to your favorite playlists, artists, HD Radio stations, etc. One quibble: it takes one too many clicks and touches to bring up the now playing screen after the display has 'gone to sleep' while you're listening to it. Other than that, the UI is delightful.
The Zune concentrates on being a Portable Media Player. Not a web browser. Not a game machine. Maybe in the future it'll do even better in those areas, but for now it's a fantastic way to organize and listen to your music and videos, and is without peer in that regard. The iPod's strengths are its web browsing and apps. If those sound more compelling, perhaps it is your best choice.
If you're still on the fence: grab your favorite earphones, head down to a Best Buy and ask to plug them into a Zune then an iPod and see which one sounds better to you, and which interface makes you smile more. Then you'll know which is right for you.
- Current Zune Owners
(See, I didn't forget you! I think owners of any of the older flash players will be delighted at the upgrade, as long as money isn't an issue. Don't hesitate. Those who value the higher capacity of the 80gb or a 120gb will have a tougher choice. If you can't afford both, then you'll have to weigh the ability to be able to have all (or at least most) of your music stored on the device vs the HD radio, better display, and sleeker than a seal UI. As I said before, this new Zune is surprisingly small and light, and you should find one to get a feel for in person too, because then you can really evaluate how compelling those new features are to you. Oh, and don't forget it has an Equalizer if that matters!
Keep in mind: Microsoft has made it clear that the HD line is the future. They were great about giving new features to the older models in the past, but we're seeing a clear signal with the 4.0 Marketplace. Most of the cool new stuff is only going to the new kid on the block, and I think that will continue to be the case. They won't cut you out entirely, but if they're going to concentrate on making the HD succeed, then I suspect that is where most if not all of their future focus and effort will go.
Sorry for the huge review, but I'm really loving the new Zune, and hope this, as well as the excellent reviews some other people have written, will help you decide if it's the right choice for you.
***UPDATE October 2011***: Much has happened since I originally wrote this review. The Zune HD is still a great bargain, but some of its advantages are not as unique any more, the Zune Pass service has changed somewhat for new users, and there is talk of the Zune HD being discontinued. Details:
- At the time I wrote this Zune Pass was one of the few music subscription services out there. Now there are a plethora of choices, although the field will probably be consolidating over the next few months: Spotify is now the 800lb gorilla of these services, there are new and well regarded services like MOG and rdio, and at the time I write this Napster has just been bought by Rhapsody and all its subscribers are being folded in with them.
Why is this important to people considering purchasing a Zune? The greater variety of choices, and the increasing popularity of smartphones mean many people have many more choices when it comes to subscription music. If your main reason to get a Zune is to enjoy subscription music, but you already have a smartphone or iPod Touch, then you have many more excellent choices than back when I first wrote this review. Spotify, MOG, rdio, and Rhapsody are all very strong services, and all allow you to download and listen to fairly high quality bitrate music on one or more mobile devices. These services all cost $10/month for streaming to PCs, smartphones, and other devices like iPod Touches, iPads, Xooms or Galaxy Tabs, TiVos, Sonos, Roku, Google TV, Samsung Smart TVs, etc.
In response to this competitive pressure the Zune Pass service has morphed, and instead of being $15/month and offering 10 free songs per month to keep as part of that, it now costs only $10/month like these other services, but no longer has the 10 free songs. Existing Zune Pass users are "grandfathered in" at this time and can continue enjoying their 10 songs per month, but anyone subscribing going forward will not have that option. On the other hand they will only pay $10/month. One nice plus: they are offering a $99/year subscription that works out to $8.25 per month. Only Napster offered a discounted year subscription, and once they're folded into Rhapsody that option will be gone (at least in the US), so this will make Zune Pass one of the most inexpensive of these services if you're willing to subscribe for the year.
Finally, there are increasing rumors that Microsoft is discontinuing the Zune line. Since there were some postings on Microsoft sites these are more substantial than most, however at this point Microsoft is officially denying they have discontinued the Zune HD. However one thing is clear: even if they do stop manufacturing more Zunes, they are certainly going to support the Zune Pass service indefinitely going forward. It is increasingly integrated into their XBox platform, and while it may be rebranded it's most likely that anyone who uses it will continue to have it available for many years to come. Also, the whole Zune HD interface became the prototype for their "Metro" UI used in the latest generation of winphones, which also can use the Zune Pass services (as well as others!).
So, should you still buy a Zune HD player? If you have an android, iOS phone, or other portable device that can use any of these subscription services then it's less compelling these days because you have these other options for music subscription services and having lots of portable music available to you. BUT, if you don't have a smartphone, and/or want a dedicated music player that has better sound than most if not all smartphones, is light and well-designed, then one of the Zune HD players may still be a nice choice for you, especially at the steadily lowering prices.